Friday, May 25, 2007

Forgotten Islands

The Times of India, May 24, 2007

If a certain line of beliefs and historical thinking ('Remembering Kaala Paani', The Times of India, May 7) has its way, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands could well see a monumental shift in their present namescape.The island named after Hugh Rose, the man who finally cornered Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi in 1858, could soon be named Laxmi Bai Dweep or maybe Rani Jhansi Dweep. Havelock Island named after the British general who retook Lucknow could well be named Nana Sahib Dweep and the island chain itself should be the Shaheed and Swaraj Islands because that is what Subhas Chandra Bose wanted them to be. The Rani of Jhansi or Nana Sahib may have known little of the islands (or even that they existed) but that surely is of little consequence.
This group of 500 odd islands, scattered in an arc in the Bay of Bengal, is certainly fertile territory for a massive, even lip-smacking renaming exercise - Tatiya Tope, Mangal Pandey, Subhas Chandra Bose, Veer Savarkar... the list is endless; one's imagination the only limitation and why not - reclamation of one's history, after all, is believed to be one of the most important and effective tools of nation building. There is one hitch however, a question that renaming enthusiasts might want to first consider - How does one reclaim what was never yours in the first place?
The A&N islands, located far away from mainland India (roughly 1,200 km from Chennai) can only be considered a gift the British left India when the empire disintegrated. There are undeniable connections of India's freedom movement with the islands best symbolised by the revolt of 1857 and the Cellular Jail. There can be no denying that and neither can one deny the close bonds that a large section of the country feels with these islands, but all put together this history does not go beyond 150 years. We might want to rename Havelock Island in the memory of Nana Sahib, but is it not worth asking whether the island that is today called Havelock had some earlier name too?
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands have been the traditional home of a number of aboriginal commu-nities - the Great Andamanese, Jarawa, Onge and Sentinelese (in the Andamans), the Nicobaris and the Shompen (in the Nicobars) that have been living here for nearly 50,000 years. The 150 years that we want to claim now is like the blink of an eye in comparison. Injustices have been done and continue to be done to these communities in a manner that has few parallels in India.Their lands have been taken, their forests converted to plywood and agricultural plantations, and the fabric of their societies so violently torn apart that extinction looms on the horizon for many of them. The Great Andamanese, who were at least 5,000 individuals when the 1857 uprising happened, are today less than 40 people. The Onge who were counted at about 600 in the 1901 census are only a 100 people today. There are critical issues of survival that these communities are faced with problems that are complex and will be difficult to resolve. If indeed there is energy and interest in doing something in the islands and for the islanders these are lines that we need to be thinking on.
These are people, like indigenous peoples everywhere, who have their own histories, their own societies, and yes, their own names for the islands and places. First the British called them something else and now we want to call them something else again. If indeed the places have to be renamed, should not an effort first be made to find out what the original people had first named them, why they were so named, what their significance was and which names are still in use by them. Should that not be the work of scholarship and historical studies? It would be a far more challenging and worthwhile exercise, and perhaps not a very difficult one either, because a lot of information does already exist. If the real and complete history of the islands is ever written, the British would not be more than a page and India could only be a paragraph. How's that for a perspective and a context?

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